Tag Archives: subtext

Using Subtext in Writing Dialogue

Some people just have a knack for writing dialogue, however it takes more than just a “good ear”.   There are other important elements that go into effective dialogue writing.

Some writers may believe that eavesdropping on  a conversation on a subway car provides instruction for how dialogue should be written.  Sure it may sound great.  After all how much more real can you get than hearing people engaging in real conversation?  Surprisingly their conversation may sound great but it will rarely make it to an award winning work of art.  Why?  Because writing good dialogue that makes readers fall in love with your characters and drives them to want to continue and finish your novel involves Subtext elements.

To understand what Subtext is all about, consider the following dialogue:

 

MARY:    “What did you do to your hair?”

KATE:  “I tried something different.  Do you like it?”

MARY:  “Well, to tell you the truth – no.  It makes you look like a hooker.”

KATE: “Well you don’t have to be so mean about it.”

Now consider the same exchange but with subtext:

MARY:  “Did you forget something?”

KATE:  “What?”

MARY:  “Red Lipstick, and shoes and dress to match? You know something to go with your new hairdo. “

While the first exchange falls flat, the second one provides more dramatic style.  Mary simply suggests that Kate looks like a hooker rather than tell her.  But even then, the subtext could be even more subtle.

Let’s look at the following exchange between a couple who hate each other – on the day of their wedding anniversary.

BILL:  “Happy Anniversary Honey.”

JANE: “Twenty years already.”

BILL:  “Twenty happy years.  We should celebrate.”

JANE: “It’s so underrated.  Let’s do something we both enjoy.”

BILL: “Agreed.  There’s a ball game this afternoon.  I’ll see if Pete wants to go.”

JANE: “And I’ll ask Betty if she’d like to go to the mall.”

In this exchange, “Something they both enjoy” translates into something that doesn’t involve each other.   It works because it falls under the rule of showing not telling.  We are showing the feelings each other have for each other.

Next time you write dialogue ask yourself the question Can I write this exchange by showing how the characters feel without being direct? In other words can you use subtext to convey the dialogue?